The Allure of the Useful Lie

The enigmatic Iranian nuclear deal may bring more cloaks and daggers down the road.

US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki briefs the media November 26, 2013, at the State Department in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Major Garrett
Dec. 3, 2013, 5:06 p.m.

With con­cision and clar­ity ut­terly lack­ing in ad­min­is­tra­tion dis­cus­sions of Obama­care, the State De­part­ment on Monday called a lie a lie.

Un­der per­sist­ent ques­tion­ing from James Rosen, Fox News’ chief Wash­ing­ton cor­res­pond­ent, State De­part­ment spokes­wo­man Jen Psaki ad­mit­ted that her pre­de­cessor, Vic­tor­ia Nu­land, misled re­port­ers when, in Feb­ru­ary, she denied the ex­ist­ence of “dir­ect, secret bi­lat­er­al talks with Ir­an.”

The ques­tion was Rosen’s, and Nu­land’s deni­al was un­equi­voc­al: “With re­gard to the kind of thing you’re talk­ing about on a gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment level: No.”

It has now been re­vealed that seni­or U.S. dip­lo­mats — Deputy Sec­ret­ary of State Wil­li­am Burns and Jake Sul­li­van, Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s top for­eign policy ad­viser — con­duc­ted at least five secret ne­go­ti­ations with Ir­a­ni­an of­fi­cials in Oman’s cap­it­al of Mus­cat. Top ad­min­is­tra­tion nuc­le­ar-arms ne­go­ti­at­or Wendy Sher­man also par­ti­cip­ated. Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials later ad­mit­ted that lower-level talks with Ir­an com­menced in 2011 and oc­curred in Mus­cat.

This in­form­a­tion now awk­wardly mar­ring the trans­par­ency table, Rosen reas­on­ably asked Psaki if it is the “policy” of the State De­part­ment to “lie” to keep secret talks un­der wraps. “There are times when dip­lomacy needs pri­vacy in or­der to pro­gress,” Psaki said.

The lie mat­ters less than the in­vest­ment in the talks them­selves. They began when the U.S. was still fight­ing in Ir­aq, Ir­an’s bel­li­ger­ence there and across the re­gion was le­git­im­ately feared, and Ir­a­ni­an strong­man Mah­moud Ah­mad­ine­jad was bel­li­cose and man­ic.

The March talks in­tens­i­fied be­fore the June elec­tion of new Ir­a­ni­an Pres­id­ent Has­san Rouh­ani, mean­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieved enough had been achieved with Ir­an’s old guard that it could pos­sibly seal a deal this year. Also, the talks con­tin­ued even as the White House suc­cess­fully pushed for tough­er sanc­tions, im­posed by its in­ter­na­tion­al part­ners and Con­gress. This be­lies the over­heated as­sump­tions back in Septem­ber at the United Na­tions that Rouh­ani and his widely traveled for­eign min­is­ter, Mo­hammad Javad Za­rif, by them­selves were pav­ing the way to­ward a thaw in re­la­tions and a pos­sible phase-one nuc­le­ar deal.

That means the White House has been play­ing the long game for some time, secretly talk­ing and pub­licly sanc­tion­ing along the way. The ad­min­is­tra­tion can be ac­cused of many things, but na­iv­ete and gull­ib­il­ity can­not be among them. They know the old and new Ir­a­ni­an guard and talked up to and around Ir­an’s Su­preme Lead­er Ayatol­lah Ali Khame­nei — meas­ur­ing his in­ten­tions, am­bi­tions, and bound­ar­ies. From such cal­cu­la­tions, big deals can be made. And the fact that the ad­min­is­tra­tion took these long-run­ning meas­ure­ments means it is not, as some have ac­cused, fall­ing for a fanci­ful Rouh­ani/Za­rif “charm of­fens­ive.”

That doesn’t mean the phase-one deal is an un­var­nished suc­cess or un­mit­ig­ated dis­aster. It is a product of con­tinu­ously sifted cal­cu­la­tions on both sides, and it most con­spicu­ously il­lus­trates the lim­its of sus­tained eco­nom­ic and dip­lo­mat­ic pres­sure ap­plied by the P5+1. As the White House has made abund­antly clear, these ne­go­ti­at­ing part­ners — Rus­sia, China, Bri­tain, France, and Ger­many — had reached their own lim­its of isol­at­ing, pun­ish­ing, and prod­ding Ir­an. Ne­go­ti­ations car­ried out with such part­ners, by their very nature, con­strain U.S. in­terests.

Rus­sia has long-stand­ing eco­nom­ic and for­eign policy in­terests, some of which con­flict with ours. Pre­vent­ing Ir­an from ob­tain­ing a nuc­le­ar weapon in­flu­ences China’s cal­cu­lus in deal­ing with a nuc­le­ar­ized North Korea and its now pub­licly de­clared in­tent to ex­tend nav­al in­flu­ence in the South China Sea. Again, China’s aims are not the same as ours. Keep­ing these two na­tions in the P5+1 har­ness was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly com­plic­ated, as was main­tain­ing European buy-in on eco­nom­ic sanc­tions that denied Bri­tain, France, and Ger­many mil­lions in com­merce they even­tu­ally want to re­coup.

Plus, the pace and in­vis­ib­il­ity of Ir­an’s urani­um en­rich­ment made the threat of it cross­ing the “break­out” threshold too dan­ger­ous and real to ig­nore. For the White House, the time for a time-out was now. Wait­ing longer could have left the world, the re­gion, and Is­rael with an un­ten­able nuc­le­ar fait ac­com­pli.

That doesn’t mean there are not trap doors, the biggest of which con­cerns pos­sible Ir­a­ni­an re­cip­i­ents of the es­tim­ated $7 bil­lion in sanc­tions re­lief Ir­an will now en­joy. As Der Spiegel points out, those now un­frozen funds, or some of them, could wind up in the hands of the Na­tion­al De­vel­op­ment Fund, a be­nign-sound­ing en­tity that West­ern in­tel­li­gence agen­cies sus­pect sup­ports two ne­far­i­ous en­tit­ies: Nov­in En­ergy, a se­cret­ive part of Ir­an’s feared nuc­le­ar-weapons pro­gram, and the Quds Force, a nasty cell with­in the Ir­a­ni­an Re­volu­tion­ary Guards with a his­tory of anti-West­ern ter­ror­ist train­ing mis­sions and cam­paigns (it’s cur­rently fight­ing to pro­tect Syr­i­an dic­tat­or Bashar al-As­sad).

What be­comes of Ir­an’s phase-one fin­an­cial re­lief is a cru­cial is­sue for the U.S. to weigh — in ad­di­tion to re­quir­ing full com­pli­ance with the new in­spec­tion pro­to­cols of Ir­a­ni­an en­rich­ment fa­cil­it­ies and the Arak heavy-wa­ter nuc­le­ar re­act­or.

This is why Con­gress is watch­ing and threat­en­ing to wield the threat of tough­er eco­nom­ic sanc­tions even as the ini­tial deal be­gins to be im­ple­men­ted. The House passed its bill in Au­gust, and it sits as a ready cudgel on the desk of Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., should Ir­an dis­semble or back­slide. While the White House makes great sport of op­pos­ing new eco­nom­ic sanc­tions, the threat re­minds Ir­an about the price of non­com­pli­ance — and that the U.S. can and will as­sert its sov­er­eign for­eign policy goals even if Rus­sia, China, and Europe go eco­nom­ic­ally and geo­pol­it­ic­ally wobbly.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion told what it con­sidered a use­ful lie about secret talks with Ir­an. The key to phase one of the Ir­an deal is for the White House to tell no lies to it­self now about Ir­an’s ac­tions. It’s equally im­port­ant the ad­min­is­tra­tion not lie to it­self about the value of its cloak-and-dag­ger dip­lomacy. Just be­cause it got us here doesn’t mean it can get us to an Ir­an that aban­dons its equally se­cret­ive pur­suit of nuc­le­ar weapons.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al Cor­res­pond­ent-at-Large and Chief White House Cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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